Vatican Criticizes Nuns' Stance On Social Issues

The Vatican has reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, saying the group has "serious doctrinal problems." The Vatican assigned an archbishop to reform the conference. The group has taken controversial stances on issues including health care and gender matters. Melissa Block speaks with Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobbying group which works closely with the LCWR.

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The Vatican has clamped down on the largest group of Catholic nuns in the U.S., citing what it calls grave concerns about serious doctrinal problems. The Holy See says the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or LCWR, has promoted radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some programs. And it has named an archbishop to oversee the nuns and approve their work. In a statement, the LCWR says it is stunned by the Vatican's conclusions and will prepare a response.

We reached Sister Simone Campbell for her reaction. She heads NETWORK, a Catholic social-justice lobby that works with the LCWR and is named in the Vatican's report.

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL: Quite frankly, it's very visceral. It's like a sock in the stomach. I wish I knew what was in their brains. I don't know. But it looks like from the outside that they are not used to strong women who took the urging of Pope Pius XII very seriously. Pope Pius XII urged women religious - way before I was in the community - to be educated in theology, to get educated in advanced degrees.

So we took him seriously, and we did it. The leadership doesn't know how to deal with strong women. And so their way is try to shape us into whatever they think it should be, not realizing that we've been faithful to the call this whole time.

BLOCK: Sister Campbell, the Vatican seems to be saying in this document that these strong women that you're talking about are at odds with the church on some very basic issues. It says that the women's group is silent on the right to life, from conception to natural death. It also mentions LCWR's positions on ministering to homosexuals, and the ordination of women - big issues for the church.

CAMPBELL: They are. They're big issues, but they aren't at the heart of faith. That's the problem. And what we do as women religious is, we minister to people everywhere who are suffering, who are being discriminated against, and we don't ask to see a baptismal certificate. We serve everyone we find, in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus. That's what we're doing.

The bishops have a different mandate and a different message. And they are trying to protect the institution and to worry mostly - apparently - about an orthodoxy that I can't quite understand. But our different missions still - serves one faith.

BLOCK: Do you think there is a fundamental gap between the Vatican and the nuns' group on those issues?

CAMPBELL: Oh, I don't know that there's a doctrinal difference. There's certainly an experience difference. We as Catholics believe our experience informs our faith and our faith informs our experience. It's - how can I say this? When you don't work every day with people who live on the margins of our society, it's much easier to make easy statements about who's right and who's wrong.

BLOCK: Sister Campbell, how do you respond to what the Vatican has done here - which is to appoint an archbishop who will basically be overseeing the women's group; will be deciding whether their conferences are OK, whether the speakers they've called in are OK - how will that be received?

CAMPBELL: My hunch is that it won't be received with a lot of joy, that's for sure. And it certainly doesn't appear necessary. But the other thing that we know as women is, the women were the first ones at the tomb on Sunday morning. Women get it first and then try to explain it to the guys who - I mean, as the women did to the Apostles. So, we will try to explain it to the guys. We'll keep up our roles from the Scriptures.

It's a challenge. It makes us mad. It makes us upset; may make us wonder about where in God's green earth all this is going and why, in God's green earth, might this be necessary. But we're faithful.

BLOCK: Sister Campbell, it's good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

CAMPBELL: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you. I'm honored to be with you.

BLOCK: That's Sister Simone Campbell. She's the executive director of the Catholic social-justice lobby NETWORK.

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